Published January 12, 2024
This week I had the privilege of speaking at a seminar for the Collegium Fellows of Doxology, a group of Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod pastors committed to spiritual care and counsel. There are serious theological differences between the Lutheran tradition and my own Reformed tradition, most obviously in the area of the Lord’s Supper. But there is an ethos that binds confessional Protestants together in a world where Catholics are in frequent turmoil over the actions of the present pope and where evangelicals are tearing themselves apart over attitudes to the current political malaise that has enveloped American public life.
Toward the end of the seminar, one pastor asked what I thought confessional Lutheranism could offer to the church catholic at this moment in time. My answer was threefold.
First, confessional Protestantism in general, when faithful to its defining documents, focuses the minds of believers upon the great truths of the Christian faith that take no account of the vicissitudes of the age. God, Trinity, Fall, Incarnation, redemption, and grace: These are truths that feed the mind and the soul, regardless of which side wins and which side loses elections. And they are the central concerns of the great confessional documents of Protestantism. Whether the Book of Concord for Lutherans; the Westminster Standards for Presbyterians; the Three Forms of Unity for the Reformed; or the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Homilies for Anglicans—all speak of the eternal weight of glory that is to come and thereby relativize the slings and arrows of this world as so many light, momentary afflictions. The implications of this are liturgical: The church goes about its ordinary work of proclaiming Christ in Word and Sacrament even as earthly regimes come and go. Thus it was in the time of Nero. So it is today.
I went on to say that confessional Lutheranism, more specifically, has two particularly important contributions for the church catholic today. First, the Lutheran distinction (echoing Augustine), between the heavenly kingdom and the earthly kingdom. This distinction is vital, especially in a time of deep political division and seductive political temptation. Much has been made of Christian nationalism as an “existential threat” to the nation and to democracy. Setting aside the rather fluid definitions of Christian nationalism, even in its most extreme form it is unlikely to pose a significant threat to society at large. But it may well prove to be a threat in the much smaller world of our congregations and denominations, where a confusion between church and world and between the power of the Word and the power of the sword would devastate the gospel.
The Lutheran tradition, properly understood, offers a way of understanding both the importance of the role of the civil magistrate but also his limited significance for the things that really matter, those things that pertain to eternity. In a year where the usual Christian suspects on both sides of the political divide will likely be investing American partisan politics with eschatological significance, there is a need for a healthy dose of the modesty that Lutheran thinking on the earthly kingdom encourages. Vote your Christian conscience but put no ultimate trust in any earthly prince.
Finally, confessional Lutheranism can offer today’s church a powerful understanding of the suffering of the church. Luther famously argued that the true theologian should be a theologian of the cross, placing the Incarnation at the center of revelation. God reveals himself under opposites. His glory is hidden in flesh, his power in the weakness of the cross, his triumph over death in the apparent triumph of death over Christ. The theologian too should expect this in his life: The faithful Christian finds his strength in weakness. And in his 1539 treatise, On the Councils of the Church, Luther calls possession of the cross one of the seven marks of the true church. The true church will be marked by outward weakness, will be despised by the world, and will suffer as she eschews the world’s methods for gaining power and influence.
The church of the twenty-first century needs to cultivate an expectation of suffering, with two particular focal points. There is individual suffering of the kind that comes to us all at some point. No matter how healthy, wealthy, and happy we are today, at some point we will find that we cannot escape the mortality of our bodies, part of the universal human condition. The task of the church is to prepare each of us for that reckoning.
But there is a deeper aspect to suffering, and that is its corporate and ecclesiastical dimension. The church herself, bound by faith to Christ and called to be the present witness to the weakness of his flesh and to the cross he bore, should also expect to suffer. She witnesses not just with Word and Sacrament, but with her manner of life as well.
A church that believes she owns the world will of course be furious when the world refuses to acknowledge such ownership. She will feel that something has been stolen from her. A church that has grasped the insights that Lutheranism articulates—the distinction between this world and the next with regard to the task and the tools of Christianity, and the centrality of suffering as a means of revealing God through hiddenness—will not make such a mistake.
Lutheranism has much to offer the church catholic at this moment in time. Like all confessional Christianity, it is anchored in realities that transcend the political particularities of our day; and it also reminds us of the church’s true task and realistic expectations in a time such as this. The challenge for evangelicals in 2024 might be to avoid selling their souls, left and right, to the politics of this world. They might well be helped in this by looking to more confessional traditions, not least that of the Lutherans.
Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.